Is presidential aging an urban myth?

According to Theodore Sorenson, JFK handwrote a short note to the next of kin of every U.S. servicemember who died in the line of duty during his Presidency.

It’s probably not a fair comparison, but could you compare photos of the presidents rival over the same time period? For example, compare Gore in 2000 v. Gore in 2008 and see how much he’s aged. Obviously, he won’t have anywhere near the stress level, but maybe the comparison would be enlightening.

A proper study would compare [del]all[/del] most presidents against their appropiate actuarial cohorts. (Since the homicide rate for presidents is nine percent, we’d have to leave four of them out of the study.)

And did you notice HOW fast Clinton aged after he got outa office?

That presidential hair dye must too expensive for the common man to even afford :slight_smile:

I think stress ages people, so I can believe it. I got lots of grey hairs from my ex-wife.

Yeah, I was surprised to see the generally well groomed Clinton looking a bit haggard these days. A side effect of Hillary’s campaigning?

I don’t doubt that the job of President is stressful, but as others have noted, most Presidents are men in their fifties. Over the course of 8 years, a man in his fifties is almost BOUND to get more white hairs and more wrinkles, even if he has a relatively easy, undemanding job.

I mean, look at Al Gore. He’s DEFINITELY gone to seed in the past eight years, even though he wasn’t in the White House. He’s noticeably older and fatter. Is that because he’s so stressed out from global warming? Or is it just that, like most men his age, he’s starting to show his years?

One way to look at this issue is to examine life expectancy. After all, if the Presidency truly ages the occupant, then shouldn’t they be expected to die before their time?

Obviously, there are going to be a lot of variables, and the following isn’t statistically sound, but let’s start with Truman and go forward. My reasons for choosing Truman are:

  1. Truman was the first President who had to live with the stresses of the United States becoming a nuclear super-power;

  2. Roosevelt is an outlier, since he served more terms than any other President;

  3. Going back before Roosevelt, the advances in modern medicine make comparisons difficult.

I’ve done some poking around, but I’ve not been able to find estimates of life expectancy for anyone born prior to 1940. The earliest I’ve been able to find is in the National Vital Statistics Reports. Table 8 of the linked article states that the life expectancy of a white male born in 1940 was 62.1 years. Since all of the dead presidents who died natural deaths from Truman onwards were born before 1940, I’ve used that estimate, which is probably more generous than their actual life expectancies.

On the other hand, while in office and afterwards, the Presidents have access to top-notch health care, so as a group, you might expect them to have longer life expectancies anyway.

I’ve not included Kennedy, since he did not die a natural death.

So all told, the following is very much a “back of the envelope” kind of playing with numbers.

Using the Wiki articles for their birth and death dates, I’ve come up with the following information:

Born: May 8, 1884
Died: December 26, 1972
Retired: January 20, 1953
Age at Retirement: 68
Age at Death: 88
Life Expectancy: 62.1*
± Life Expectancy: +25.9
Years after Presidency: 19

Born: October 14, 1890
Died: March 28, 1969
Retired: January 20, 1961
Age at Retirement: 70
Age at Death: 78
Life Expectancy: 62.1*
± Life Expectancy: +7.9
Years after Presidency: 8

Born: August 27, 1908
Died: January 22, 1973
Retired: January 20, 1969
Age at Retirement: 60
Age at Death: 64
Life Expectancy: 62.1*
± Life Expectancy: +1.9
Years after Presidency: 5

Born: January 9, 1913
Died: April 22, 1994
Retired: August 9, 1974
Age at Retirement: 61
Age at Death: 81
Life Expectancy: 62.1*
± Life Expectancy: +18.9
Years after Presidency: 19

Born: July 14, 1913
Died: December 26, 2006
Retired: January 20, 1977
Age at Retirement: 63
Age at Death: 93
Life Expectancy: 62.1*
± Life Expectancy: +30.9
Years after Presidency: 29

Born: October 1, 1924
Retired: January 20, 1981
Age at Retirement: 56
Current Age: 84
Life Expectancy: 62.1*
± Life Expectancy: +21.9 and counting
Years after Presidency: 28 +

Born: February 6, 1911
Died: June 5, 2004
Retired: January 20, 1989
Age at Retirement: 77
Age at Death: 93
Life Expectancy: 62.1*
± Life Expectancy: +30.9
Years after Presidency: 15

Bush I
Born: June 12, 1924
Retired: January 20, 1993
Age at Retirement: 68
Current Age: 84
Life Expectancy: 62.1*
± Life Expectancy: 21.9 and counting
Years after Presidency: 16 and counting

Born: August 19, 1946
Retired: January 20, 2001
Age at Retirement: 54
Current Age: 62
Life Expectancy: 64.3**
± Life Expectancy: still counting
Years after Presidency: 8 and counting

Bush II
Born: July 6, 1946
Retired: January 20, 2009
Age at Retirement: 62
Current Age: 62
Life Expectancy: 64.3**
± Life Expectancy: still counting
Years after Presidency: 9 days

  • Unable to find life expectancy for this birth year; using the life expectancy for white males born in 1940, the earliest data found.

** Using the average of life expectancy for white males born in 1940 (62.1) and those born in 1950 (66.5).

Of the dead Presidents, all exceeded the 1940 life expectancy. The shortest was Johnson, who lived only +1.9 years past the life expectancy. The longest was a tie between Ford and Reagan, at +30.9 years. The average for the six dead Presidents is +19.4.

Of the four living ex-Presidents, two (Carter and Bush I) have exceeded their life expectancy, at +21.9 each. The other two (Clinton and Bush II) are both going strong, apparently, but have not yet reached their average life expectancy.

So from this perspective, the Presidency does not appear to diminish the life expectancies of the occupants.

Another way to look at it is to consider their years after the presidency. If the presidency does age people, you would think there might be a short life span after retirement. The above figures don’t bear that out. Johnson is again the shortest, living for only five years after the Presidency, but Ford at the other extreme lived for 29 years after leaving office.

The average for the dead ex-Presidents is 15.3 years of life after leaving office.

It might be argued that in the specific case of Johnson, the Presidency did in fact age him, given the unusual stresses he was under during the Vietnam War. However, it’s difficult to make the argument that as a general rule, the Presidency ages the incumbents.

Great post, Northern Piper.

Or, contrariwise, we could assume he looks older because he is no longer running for elected office and does not need to be as fastidious about his appearance.

He had a quadruple bypass three years after he left office! It’s not surprising he looks older after that, and his recovery from followup surgery in 2005 was supposedly very painful.

Fascinating analysis, Northern Piper - thanks! You should submit that to the SDMB powers that be - there’s the core of a great Staff Report there.

And yes, Clinton lost a lot of weight and looked positively gaunt after his post-Presidential surgery.

The only thing I’d say to Northern Piper’s excellent post is that Presidents would get better care than the average citizen both in terms of preventative care and in terms of urgent type care. So that may skew their life expectancies up quite a bit. Also LOOKING old isn’t the same thing as BEING old, from a physical perspective.

Still, that was a great back of the envelop post!


No, you fool! Haven’t you seen any of the warnings on the glass-eyed flickerbox? That would be a certain path to destruction and madness!

Are the figures for for life expectancy at birth or life expectancy at retirement age?
Clinton has aged quickly since leaving office as a result of his heart problems.

Its from something, but it aint campaining…I think it starts with an N . :slight_smile:

IIRC, he started “looking old” mere months after he left office.

Like Reagan, I suspect hair dye and makeup artist had more to do with it than anything else.

Remember, life expectancy includes the possibility of dying of SIDS three days after birth, and of dying of measles at age 5, and of falling out of a tree and breaking your neck at age 8, and crashing a car off a bridge at age 17, and so on, and anyone who’s running for President has already gotten past a lot of those situations. What you need isn’t the average life expectancy, but the average life expectancy of someone who’s already lived to adulthood.

In addition, I’m sure there is a huge selective effect impacting presidential candidates. Very few diabetic, obese, malignant cancer having, etc. people tend to run for president, so there is a strong bias for presidential candidates to be healthier than the average population. In addition, economic status needs to be taken into account, as life expectancy is highly correlated with personal wealth, and presidential candidates also tend to be in the highest tax brackets.

I’m only a health actuary, not a life actuary, so I’m sure there’s other major factors I’m overlooking. Still, I think this is on the right track for doing this kind of study, at least in principal, although we would need thousands upon thousands of presidents for the results to be fully credible.

Edit: Another MAJOR factor, already mentioned by Northern Piper, is access to the highest quality health care at a moment’s notice. I don’t think the impact this has on increasing life expectancy can be overstated, which is why I’m mentioning it again.

On the other hand, William Petersen clearly aged quite a bit over eight or nine years of playing Gil Grissom on CSI. David Duchovny didn’t get any younger over all the years of the X-Files.

Jonathan Frakes and Kelsey Grammer just seemed to keep getting bigger over all the years of ST:TNG and Frasier, albeit not necessarily older.

And if you’ve seen Damages, it’s apparent that Ted Danson died several years ago.

Maybe it’s just the stress of being in the public eye.

And incidentally, as to LBJ’s relatively early death after leaving the White House, he was no spring chicken when JFK was assassinated, and had previous health problems, including heavy smoking, borderline obesity and a heart attack, IIRC.

Stressfull lives = more wrinkles. That’s a truism. This goes for all sorts of stressful lives, of course, not just the high status ones like President. A President does have a more stressful job than his similarly wealthy peers. That’s a truism, too.

It’s not just Presidents, either - witness Tony Blair’s rapid aging. He started out looking fairly young for his age, and finished looking oooold.

That’s a really intersting post, but I thought the OP (with comments about photos and so on) was asking about visible sgns of aging, not whether Presidents and former Presidents live longer or not.